Paid web news = Fail! I offer a softer alternative

By Steve Outing

My May Editor & Publisher Online column was published today — “Getting Money from Readers Who Won’t Pay for Online News” — and it’s mostly getting positive reviews so far. I make the case against daily newspapers’ shift toward charging for local news on their websites, and suggest an alternative: paid memberships that work with the paper’s advertisers and offer significant value, so it’s not just a “tin cup,” “please support local journalism” strategy.

As I note in the column, this is one option being considered by the New York Times. Also, today I heard from a couple other newspaper folks who say they’re either discussing or working on such a membership program.

Over on the Media Nation blog, Dan Kennedy mentioned my column, and one of his commenters suggested:

“Outing’s assessment No. 3 needs a touch of adjustment. The REAL monetary value of a newspaper is in its subscriber/readership base, and the access to that base that it can provide. This is what advertisers pay for. Content is the benefit that the subscriber/reader gets for allowing the publisher into their lives. …

“Those who cut content risk the alienation of the very constituency that enables them to charge the advertising rates on which their very survival depends.”

That brings up a point I missed in the column: A high-value membership program could attract paying members who don’t use the core product (newspaper and/or website). Here’s my response to the commenter:

“Hmmm. What I advocated in my column (the part you refer to as No. 3) is that a ‘membership program’ become a new addition to a newspaper company’s ad program that would be appealing to advertisers and enticing enough that consumers would clamor to pay for the benefits in great enough numbers that they support the newspaper’s reporting. It’s similar to commercials supporting ABC World News Tonight, or ads supporting the free alternative weekly in your town, but the newspaper membership doesn’t require you to read the paper’s website content.

“You make a good point. Perhaps the editorial content shouldn’t be completely detached from the revenue source, so that people don’t just buy the membership because of all the great deals but then don’t read the news, which then hurts the newspaper website’s ad revenues. So yes, perhaps a ‘touch of adjustment’ is in order.

“I often like to flip things on their heads to get a different perspective. One possibility might be to have a base membership price (say $20/month), but offer discounts based on the member’s pageviews during the previous month. … Or let them take a news quiz at the end of each week and if they score above a set level, they get $5 off that month. … Sounds a bit crazy, but we’re not only interested in making money to support news gathering; we’re also interested in an informed public and a better functioning democracy.

“I’d most like to see newspaper publishers get more creative. ‘Let’s put up a pay wall’ demonstrates the lack of creativity and innovation at the highest levels of the industry.”

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!